Last month, Jon Blocker, 70, a devoted husband, father, and grandfather died.He was also a retired Corpus Christi police officer. He served on the force for 28 years.
He was a beat cop the whole time. He said he didn’t want to be a supervisor because he liked working directly with people. He taught me that you have to give people a chance to tell their story before you can help them solve their problems. He liked people and was genuinely interested in what they had to say.
At his funeral, the minister told a story about a person who had caused his congregation great consternation. No one wanted to deal with the problem. But Jon volunteered. In his cheerful way, he sat and listened carefully to what the person had to say and patiently resolved their issue. Everyone who knew Jon would have seen that coming.
Former Police Chief Pete Alvarez once told me that whenever he got wind of a situation on the streets that was getting out of control, he’d send Jon over to settle things down. He said that Jon was as cool as the other side of the pillow and his calmness was contagious. There’s no telling how much misery Jon spared us and our city as he went about his work.
If you think about the police officers and firefighters you’ve met, they tend to be strong people with an overriding instinct to protect others. That was Jon.
Jon lettered in gymnastics at the powerhouse University of Nebraska. He was a natural athlete with incredible balance and reactions, but he always played it down and carried himself like an average guy. He told me that during a boxing lesson in the police academy, the instructor matched him against a smaller cadet. Jon begged to be paired with someone else, but the instructor insisted.
Jon was afraid he’d hurt him, so he kept pulling his punches. After a while, his opponent got cocky and threw a big overhand right. Jon instinctively ducked and came up firing an uppercut that knocked the cadet out for several minutes. That’s a pretty cool story, but Jon was ashamed when he told it to me because hurting someone was the last thing he wanted to do.
One autumn day, we were out surfing with my fifteen-year-old son, Matt. The waves were so big that I lost sight of him. Panicked, I paddled over to Jon and asked if he’d seen him. Jon smiled and pointed to Matt about thirty yards farther outside. “I always watch out for him,” he said. I never worried about Matt again.
When I quit surfing several years ago, I lost track of Jon. So I hadn’t heard that, as so often happens to the very best people, he’d become seriously ill. I thought he was ageless, so I was shocked when I saw his obituary. It was as though the moon had been slung from its orbit.
It’s hard to understand what motivates first responders. The world beats on all of us and drives us closer to cynicism every day. It’s all we can do to protect ourselves and the few people we love from its daily erosion of our souls. But first responders put our welfare and lives above their own: the opposite of cynicism.
We call them when life’s most traumatic events happen to us: car accidents, fires, burglaries, medical emergencies. Our most dreaded nightmares are the daily realities of first responders who show up ready to help despite knowing the situation could be dangerous and that we’ll be at our worst. Imagine life at those moments without them.
And every day on TV we see them risking everything to rescue someone they’ve never met from a spectacular, life-threatening situation. It happens so often that we take it for granted and never think to ask, “Why would anyone choose a profession where you might be called upon to do that?”
It’s a mystery. But I think my friendship with Jon gave me some insight. It may sound trite, but Jon was a hero because it was in his DNA; it’s simply what he was. Somehow the universe is balanced in such a way that while most of us are running from the flames, a very few run into them. Whatever that selfless impulse was that compelled the firefighters to climb the stairs of the Twin Towers on 9/11 was part of Jon too and every other first responder.
They’re a blessing to all of us, and we’d be wise to remember that.